The GM Awakens: Getting Objective with Mass Combat

This series follows the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures of a fairly inexperienced GM who has recently picked up the hobby after a long time away. It aims to assist new GM’s by examining what worked, didn’t work, and what failed miserably as he spins up new campaigns, modules, encounters, and adventures for his friends and family in Fantasy Flight Games’ Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion/Force and Destiny system.

The Mass Combat rules in the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPG is my favorite rule set in the game.  Often overlooked or considered too intimidating for many GMs, the cinematic nature of the rules caused me to dive in head first.  Last year, I wrote a three part series on my experience and advice in running the rules and creating a mass combat adventure for your players.  The three parts can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Now that I’ve had some more time with the rules, and have some more experience, I’ve stumbled on a few more experiences and learned some things the hard way, I thought I might talk about what those have been and how to avoid them.

Now I should explain, part of my experiences may stem from the type of group I have that has run through the Mass Combat rules with me.  Just in case your group is like this, I’ll try to describe as best I can.  My players are a mix of veterans of RPG’s and a couple of newbies to any RPG.  But they are all new to the SWRPG system from FFG.  We’ve been playing a campaign for about a full year now and they’re getting quite powerful.  But my veterans are used to D&D and Dungeon Crawl Classics and similar games.  You know, the “Go in the room, kill the things, take their stuff” sort of games.  So, the narrative, wide-open system of the Star Wars universe can be daunting.  In many cases I do not have the players on rails, but as the adventure proceeds, they end up on rails because it’s comfortable for them.  They want me to tell them where they can go, what they can do, how to get there, etc.  Almost like a “Choose your own adventure” book from the 1980s.  I try to not pigeon-hole them like that but it happens.  They often don’t know what to do, or where to start, or anything.  Often, when my table is silent, I start throwing out ideas, suggestions, things to get the mind going, etc.  (That might be a mistake because while I’m time crunched, I want the players to feel things out for themselves.)  But then they tend to take my suggestions and do only those.  I’m still working to break them out of this.  They love the system and praise it constantly.  I just am not sure if they’re comfortable in it just yet.  Perhaps you have players like that as well.

Currently, we are finishing up Friends Like These from Age of Rebellion.  A fantastic adventure.  The end is one giant Mass Combat encounter so I will not spoil it here for those that are going to play through it.  I’ll say that the first couple phases of the Mass Combat, there is an optional objective, that if the PC’s choose, they can try to accomplish it.  In the 4th phase, when we hit the ground, basically the group was free to do anything they wished on a huge battlefield.  I then narrated an objective they could tackle.  It was optional.  All my players chose to head for the objective, except my final player to speak at the table.  The reason was… they didn’t know what to do.  Exchanges around the table went like this:

GM (Me): “OK [Character Name] what is it you do?]”

Player:  “Um… I’ll… I’ll go with them I guess.”

I had all kinds of fun, cinematic fun ideas the group could do in the game and the team simply plodded towards the one and only thing I mentioned they could do.  The fact there was a massing Imperial force invading the planet just fell by the wayside.  If I didn’t mention it, they didn’t think it.  The last player didn’t go in the same direction because he saw that everyone was ignoring the overall battle, so he went off to try and address it, setting explosives for the marching Imperials.

So fast forward to the next phase, and there were no objectives.  I had nothing written into the phase that gave my players options of actions to take.  The phase, as it was, had no direction.  Many groups would thrive with such an adventure with the rails off. However, for my group, I was nervous going into the next session, knowing I was going to point to the bad guys and say, “OK do your thing, do what you want.”  That would have given to a lot of silent voices.  So I decided to re-write the phase that was upcoming.  The first time I ran Mass Combat I had objectives in the middle of the phases because I didn’t have any other ideas.  I always provided the rails for the team, rather than the overall goal.

So, what if you have a group that sometimes struggles with how to start or what to do on the battlefield?  What if that’s in the middle of Mass Combat?  (It doesn’t have to be Mass Combat but that’s been my example.)  Let’s examine how to set objectives in the middle of the a phase of Mass Combat.

Lead with your PCs’ strengths

When you’re inventing objectives for the characters to tackle during a Mass Combat adventure, dig through the character sheets for the talents and things your team does well… the things that make them shine.  If you have a mechanic, perhaps he needs to get the backup power back online or repair a critical hit of an important vehicle.  If you have a hand-to-hand combat expert, have some enemy troops get in way too close that need to be dealt with.  An explosives expert could plant some booby-traps for the incoming troops.  Or perhaps the team’s pilot needs to take out bombers before they reach the base.  Things like that will make your characters feel like they’re the only ones that can handle the job.

Exploit your PCs’ weaknesses

Boy this seems like a contradiction doesn’t it?  Well if you have a strong team and all you do is give them softballs, there will be no tension or drama in the battle.  So, do things that shake up your party and encourage creative solutions and teamwork.  For example, split the party.  Maybe the team mechanic is in a ship over the fighting, and the power generator needs to be restarted by the team medic or ambassador character.  Maybe the team murder-hobo needs to rally the troops with a rousing speech.  If you have characters good at hand-to-hand combat or have short range weapons, introduce a team of snipers they must take out who are pinning down your troops.  Don’t introduce only these types of objectives, however.  They must be used in conjunction with objective that cater to the team’s strengths.

Give your players some toys

What I mean by this is add things around the battlefield that they can use or have fun with.  For example, in one of my games, I included an Imperial walker tank that I knew the team would hijack and then use in the battle.  The idea is to add things around the battlefield or encounter that the group can use creatively.  Perhaps an AT-AA vehicle to shoot down ships in the air.  Maybe you can leave around some weapons or vehicles that need to be repaired before they can be used, but having those left near the team’s mechanic could be fun.  Adding all sorts of computers, terminals, vehicles, weapons, or gear around can add for a lot of fun things your PC’s can creatively use to complete the objectives.

Objective completion or failure should affect the Mass Combat checks

The bottom line is that everything the group does should affect the narrative of the battle, which in this system means to affect the Mass Combat check.  Be it a boost die, upgrade, downgrade, or decrease in difficulty, your players’ actions absolutely need to affect the checks between phases.  It’s the key and heart of the system.  It’s the thing that makes the overall fighting not just background story.  In fact, just as you can in a regular skill check, if the successes or failures are on the dice that were added due to the PC’s actions, you can narrate that their specific actions turned the tide of the battle.

Some of these things seem relatively common sense, I realize.  And I discussed some aspects of this prior in my earlier columns.  But after removing objectives from a Mass Combat adventure, the specific things called out the PCs could tackle, I realized that my group lost their way.  Not every group might need this type of mechanic to navigate a large battle.  But if your PCs struggle with what to do when given almost infinite options, narrowing their field and giving them carrots in the form of objectives just might be a tool you can use to focus the narrative.

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Scott Alden

Scott Alden

Scott is a full-time IT Manager living in Lawrence, KS. (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk! Just outside Kansas City for those who don't know.) Scott is a veteran of several role playing, table top miniatures, video, and board games, starting with the Atari 2600 when he was 6, and the classic red box Dungeons and Dragons game when he was 12. After a long hiatus away from the hobby, Scott has recently picked up gaming once again, and is running two different campaigns in Fantasy Flight Games' Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion/Force and Destiny lines. He is an avid X-Wing miniatures player, as well as Armada, Imperial Assault, Space Hulk, and Rebellion. (His family is obviously a Star Wars family, right?) Scott is married to his high school sweetheart, and has 2 children in middle school, both Black Belts in Krav Maga martial arts.
Scott Alden

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